The following is an essay that originally appeared in Australian Design Review as "Beyond the Wall, the Floor." In it, Michael Holt and Marissa Looby describe the evolution of Herzog and de Meuron's work. Using numerous examples of recent projects (such as VitraHaus and 56 Leonard Street), they point out that Herzog and de Meuron have, increasingly, relied on the floor slabs of their buildings to suggest the building’s shape. By removing the façade’s prominence in favor of a more suggestive way of creating mass, they have turned their original design signature on its head.
Simple adjustments, slight alterations, subtle illusions. These are not tagline descriptions of the 1111 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach project, or a synopsis for a body of work. Instead they operate as retroactively projecting the course of professional development in the works of Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. The practice is known, from its earliest built projects, as a firm who produced artistically driven facade treatments where the vertical plane — the ‘nominal façade’ — would define form through the visually stimulating surface or skin. As the practice has evolved, it is argued here, they have crafted a new strategy: the horizontal plane as vertical facade generator.
In its progression the practice has deviated from facade ornamentation and fabrication towards the removal of the facade altogether; allowing for the floor plate — as a visual element — to operate as inadvertent facade and thus doubling its structural and visual importance. The placing of floor plates becomes the force creating the form – the ‘inverted structural skin’. The stripped back architectural form does not remove the facade, but removes the idea of a facade, paradoxically creating a building mass almost by default.
The floor plates at 1111 Lincoln Road are design generators in both programmatic and visual terms. The building is a mixed-use development comprising of four different parcels that predominantly functions as a parking facility. Floor-to-ceiling heights vary between standard parking heights, double or even triple height in order to accommodate other programs in an inventive twist on the underutilised programmatic constraint of the typical parking station. The site accommodates an existing building, the former Suntrust bank; 300 car multi-level parking facility; 40,000sqft retail; four luxury private residences as well as a number of internal courtyards; and, a public promenade with a glass pavilion designed by the artist Dan Graham.
Here, the ornamentally reductive, yet visually apparent, car parking mass is formed through a number of striated, interlocking concrete slab floor plates which are carried by irregularly-spaced, shard-like columns with pedestrian and vehicular ramps. The structure seems strangely flimsy, mainly as a result of its multilateral columns that seem to bow and compress with the force applied by the floor plate above. Of course, the visual impact is achievable by the fact that there is no apparent facade.
The Miami Beach project marks a significant step in the evolution of the practice. Where previously Herzog & de Meuron initiated the idea of a layered building envelope through the use of gabion wall construction (e.g. Dominus Winery, California, 1995); furthered by a flattening into a planar surface perceivably acting as three-dimensional skin (e.g. Ricola-Europe, Mulhouse-Brunstatt, 1993); to the present incarnation with a project that sublimates – the facade appears visible in its actual non-visible state. 1111 Lincoln Road visually collapses the facade into a figural sublimation where it appears through the very fact it is illusory. This is not achieved through representation, nor through a naive formal abstraction, it sublimates: where one component is taken as given, worked against another, producing something entirely different or subtly ambiguous, yet genealogically connected.
‘Figural’, in object terms, denotes the idea of comprehending an object through a process of association, where inflections give an idea of the object as opposed to its representable form. The act of ‘sublimation,’ in this analogy, would allow for the object to be identifiable as a more refined version of its original. Therefore, the figural sublimation of the facade is to define the vertical plane through a purified association of the basic components of construction. The same approach has been used in the marketing of the project with the design of the logo. The logo does not define the building’s postal address solely; nor does it illustrate the building’s aesthetics. Instead it collapses everything into a figural sublimation of what the building stands for in theoretical terms.
Herzog & de Meuron’s use of artwork or their notable artistic collaborations with Michael Craig-Martin, Dan Graham, Karl Blossfeldt or Ai Weiwei are widely documented. Each collaboration has shifted the practice towards a new line of enquiry: whether it is the facade treatment of polycarbonate backlighting at the Laban Dance Centre, UK (Craig-Martin); the light filtration through replication of a photographic image at the Ricola-Europe factory, Switzerland (Blossfeldt); or, the instantly recognisable structural conglomeration of the Bird’s Nest, China (Ai Weiwei). However, in projects designed since the turn of the century, Herzog & de Meuron has allowed the floor plate to become a defining element in the facade’s visual appearance.
One such idea is that of “stacking” the iconographic symbol of a house at the VitraHaus, Vitra Campus, Weil am Rhein (2009); Herzog & de Meuron took an extruded form of a simplified house (flat ground plane and pitched, or gabled roof) and multiplied it to provide a unique three-dimensional effect. In a step away from the house, towards the further simplification of form, Herzog & de Meuron at Actelion Research and Laboratory Building, Allschwil, Switzerland (2005-2010) reduced the iconographic elements of the stacking effect into a more dismembered manifestation. Floor slabs and ceiling planes are aesthetically identical, intensifying the idea of the stack.
The project’s steel frame, load-bearing structure is ratified by various angular cross bracing, and strengthened by the stacked elements meeting at one point. The building, with its array of haphazardly arranged cantilevering floors offset at jaunty angles and in all directions, indicates an embryonic use of the floor plate as design feature. As opposed to the stack effect, what is palpable from the project is the uniformity of the ceiling plane and floor slab; both white plinths define horizontality rather than a vertical stack. A distinct development towards the floor plate becoming a dominant design generator.
The Actelion project acts as prototypical for the proceeding Herzog & de Meuron buildings, where each project explores the idea that the facade is only truly revealed by the horizontal plane — the floor plate. Such a strong characteristic has almost become the sole, immediate design feature. A subtle nuance: the facade has become non-visible in favour of the floor plate; whereas before the slab was invisible, often hidden behind a perforated skin or gabion wall construction. It is a simple, yet revolutionary reversal. The notional ‘skin’ displayed through striated, shifting floor plates.
In spite of the fact that the 56 Leonard Street (New York, 2006- ) project is currently on hold, the fifty-seven storey residential tower marks a progression of the floor plate concept into the metropolitan fabric, but it does so with a seemingly random form as opposed to simplistic geometry. Ideologically the project stands in stark contrast to the blandness of most other city towers. Instead, Herzog & de Meuron create a number of shifting floor plates that not only define corners, sheltering cantilevers or private balconies, but that also provide a non-visible skin. As the practice states: “The building [also] shows its structural ‘bones’ and does not hide the method of its fabrication underneath layers of cladding. Instead, exposed horizontal concrete slabs register the floor-by-floor stacking of the construction process.”
Such asymmetrical floor plate striation creates a distinctive quality to 56 Leonard Street, making it aesthetically similar to Beirut Terraces (Beirut, planned completion 2015). One consistent measurement in the Beirut project is the 3.31-metre floor-to-ceiling height clearance, but the building volume is differentiated by the replication of five modular floors multiplied in different combinations. In order for the building mass to fluctuate, the apartment partitions are non-load bearing and the structure is instead carried by a central column grid with spans of up to 14-metres. In resolving construction issues Herzog & de Meuron create a visually striking tower. This layering effect may well be in direct relation to programmatic necessities or, in the case of the Beirut project, some kind of subtle reference to the city’s tumultuous history. But more importantly, the resultant design of varying floor plates, projecting and rising to 119-metres tall, intensifies the notion of the facade as interpretative- creating an almost alchemical reaction.
The aforementioned towers create a verticality through the shifting floor plates, but at the São Paulo Cultural Complex (Luz, planned completion 2016) there is a distinct use of the floor plate to create horizontality where the interlocking plates act as an extension of the street catering for a dance theatre, music school, recital hall, and additional spaces for operatic performance. The project’s expansive horizontality emphasises its contextualisation as the building eloquently rests within the urban fabric, never rising above the surrounding building heights.
Similarly, Herzog & de Meuron’s latest completed project, the pavillion for the Serpentine Gallery (London, 2012), combines the historical layering metaphor and contextualisation with the programmatic use of the floor plate to great effect. The pavillion is devised as a nuanced continuation of the Serpentine pavillion- a project that annually invites selected individual designers such as Renzo Piano, SANAA and Frank Gehry to design their own version. With a single plinth doubling as both roof and platform for special events, Herzog & de Meuron’s manifestation shows a significant duality. The floor plate becomes a dual operative plane — legible and visually defining. Although the floor plate is singular at Serpentine it highlights a point in a career progression that sees Herzog & de Meuron cast a notional interpretation of the idea of a facade in the form of an abstracted illusion.
Prior to the twenty-first century, Herzog & de Meuron’s earliest projects are focused on an appreciation of material: simple gestures to overcome architectural problems. The Stone House (Italy, 1988), a project constructed of external dry stone infill with a reinforced concrete frame highlights an aggregated, somewhat primitive approach to design. In an idea replicated at the Dominus Winery (California, 1995), light is allowed to filter through the cracks between the slate-like rubble facades providing a three-dimensional depth to what is at first considered a planar element. With shadow relief, stone patterns and filtration, the facade effectively becomes an interactive ‘skin’, according to the architects: “you could describe our use of the gabions as kind of stone wickerwork with varying degrees of transparency, more like skin than like traditional masonry.”
This interactivity is transformed further in later projects that explore the idea of ‘surface’. If the aggregated rustic stone facade acts as a three-dimensional skin, the facade at the Signal Box Auf dem Wolf (Basel, 1989) begins to morph the three-dimensional quality of the skin with the panelised flatness of a facade that has subtle contortions to allow the facade to operate akin to Dominus Winery, but with a more expansive planar material. This combination exemplifies a horizontal condition, visually reducing the volumetric height of the project.
It may well be coincidental to the practice’s own expansion that the projects which utilise the floor plate as a design idiosyncrasy are larger scaled urban gestures; more often than not they are buildings of prominence and metropolitan spectacle. The unassumingly titled Triangle project (Paris, planned completion 2016) is one such urban scale building. Its straightforward, uncomplicated volume may well be designed to accommodate adjacent residential buildings and to reduce the immediate impact on street level; but with its east façade steadily stepping and its vast expanses of curtain wall glazing, the design thrusts the floor plates into the realm of the undeniably visual.
Comparatively, smaller, less ubiquitous earlier projects that have little or no program inside the flamboyantly bland box have an intricate, ornamental facade. For example, the Ricola-Europe SA, Production and Storage Building’s (Mulhouse-Brunstatt, 1993) facade has removed all contortions and three-dimensionality in favour of pure ‘ornamentation’. The building is typical of the factory typology; it is a steel-framed box with expansive spans and flexible internal divisions allowing for efficient factory operation. It is rectangular in plan and has deep sweeping awnings that are reminiscent of an open cardboard box. The box has been ‘decorated’ by a layering of ornamentation; it is an architecturally designed, highly detailed and refined, simplistic extrusion.
The facade consists of two translucent polycarbonate walls embellished with the silk-screen film of the leaf of Achilea umbelata (a photograph by artist Karl Blossfeldt) on the long side of the box. With the use of a silk-screened image, Herzog & de Meuron cultivates an idea of absolute flatness. The defining feature is that the exterior aesthetic functions solely on its facade ‘cosmetics’. The architectural mechanics are concealed, only the facade’s superfluity is revealed. In contrast, the aforementioned larger scaled projects like 1111 Lincoln Road, Triangle and Beirut Terraces — holding greater programmatic complexity — seem to reverse this trend and oversimplify the facade treatment to the point of absolution.
What transpires in both cases is a contradiction of functionalism; whereby the previously functional object is simplified but retains complete purposelessness through its facade. The floor plates become pre-eminent as the facade recedes from visibility, where the programmatic complexity is overcompensated for by the visual illusion of the idea of a facade. It is a distinct reversal from the treatments of earlier projects, notably Ricola-Europe or Signal Box Auf dem Wolf.
To trace this idea through the career of the practice begins to unravel a possible thread, and one that may be dormant to the practitioners themselves. Herzog & de Meuron, as visiting professors at both Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and ETH Zurich, hold a significant position within contemporary architectural discourse. In their collaborations with notable artists, they have previously cited figures from different fields believing that such a cross-contamination of discursive methods only adds to the richness of architectural production. Many of the terms at play in much of the earlier works are centred on terminology rooted in the late 1980’s through to the mid-1990’s, significantly impacting upon the architectural production of the practice. Skin,surface, decoration, ornament, functionalism and cosmetics are architecturally identifiable adjectives.
In the latter part of the 1990’s, turning the corner into the twenty-first century, the practice speculated on the idea that the skin or surface could still operate as a decorative element, but significantly also begins to partially reveal the mechanics of the floor plates. Through varying facade treatments Herzog & de Meuron obscurely reveal the floor plates’ simple form and strong visual impact. For instance, the Prada Aoyama (Tokyo, 2002) project with its rhomboid-shaped structural glazing façade creates a visual interactivity but also, ultimately, a transparency through the mixture of convex, concave or flat glass panels. Similarly, at the Laban Dance Centre (London, 1999) the use of coloured, transparent polycarbonate panels mounted in front of the glazing system provides a visually engaging facade but virtually reveals the skeletal form of the building’s frame.
Herzog & de Meuron hold a focus and importance on the facade, be it in aesthetic terms or solely functional. The facade would diffuse light through its gabion construction; or seductively shimmer in the moonlight; or its metal surface was figuratively perforated in its fabrication; or, its smooth, flatness collapsed images into a silk-screened two-dimensional image dually operating as a three-dimensional skin. One aspect remained constant: the facade was paramount; remaining as such for the fact that it concealed the mechanics of the building with the floor plate lying visually dormant. A non-visible, functional component in the construction process and a programmatic element.
As the body of work progressed, so does the concept of facade. In its various manifestations the facade has been a figurative description of a functionalist plane; with its overriding significance never in doubt, rather it has merely shifted from immediate view. Where once the facade — for Herzog & de Meuron — provided shelter, programmatic segregation or an aesthetic attraction to the viewer; the facade, skin or surface has now visually eroded into the notion of a facade. This is through the implementation of shifting, striated floor plates which passively project the notional facade and present the idea of a volumetric mass, minus facade treatment. It could be said that Herzog & de Meuron’s work has encountered a complete reversal of aesthetics where solid becomes void, where ornamentation is paradoxically replaced by emptiness, and where three-dimensional form switched to the illusion of form- its figural sublimation.
Herzog & de Meuron’s built resolution has, previously, proclaimed its arrival through a glamorous, aesthetically explicit facade; in a bid to present an inherent, figural expression the more recent projects rely not on a figurative representation but on the infinitely more gracious implicit notion of a facade resolutely sculpted by nothing yet announcing everything.
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